How to Choose an Authentic Panama Hat (A Clue: It’s Not from Panama!)
A Panama Hat on your head and you mean business.
It is time to seriously relax and enjoy the good weather. No mucking about.
You cannot help but look chilled, suave and sophisticated.
Panama Hats are loved by all, and their lightweight materials and wide brim mean they are unbeatable for hot weather and sun.
If you are going on a Caribbean holiday, this is definitely what you need.
If you have a business appointment on a sunny day, ideal.
If you are sitting out in the garden with a mojito, why not?
Time to chillax
In this blog you will find out how to choose your Panama Hat: what to look for and why, so you can really make a good choice, and spend your money wisely.
First of all, despite their name, Panama Hats are not from Panama - the most famous hats come from Ecuador, but Mexico and Colombia also make top-quality Panamas.
Since I’m writing from Bogotá, I want to give some special attention to the little-talked-about Colombian Panama Hats. But first the back story!
Who makes Panama Hats?
The hats are made in small hubs of indigenous and local communities. There are a couple of towns in each of these countries where the tradition is focused.
In Ecuador, they are mainly made in the towns of Montecristi or Jipijapa. The Montecristi Hats are considered the best in the world (but with a price tag to match).
In Mexico, they call them Jipijapa Hats (since the tradition came to them from the Ecuadorian town) and are mainly made (in caves!) in a village called Bécal.
This is Don Carmito making a hat in his own cave in his back garden in Bécal, Mexico. He said he can take anything between three days and two months to make a hat, depending on the intricacy of the weave.
He had some gorgeous Panama Hats for sale, unfortunately none in my size!
There is also a hub of communities in Nariño, Colombia (the neighboring state to Ecuador) which produce amazing hats.
In the center of Colombia there is another culture of Panama Hats, where they get the name Aguadero Hats, because they are made in the town of Aguadas.
These are all small-scale artisans who have unequaled talent and their product is popular with fashion lovers the world over.
So, why are Panama Hats called Panama Hats?
It is most likely the technique for making the hats dates back to the Incan Empire, before Europeans arrived.
The first recorded reference to a ‘Panama Hat’ in English was in about 1776. They became popularized in the US in the gold rush of the 1800s when they traveled up from New Granada to California (New Granada was a country which included modern-day Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, and Venezuela).
Some suggest they went via middlemen in Panama City, which was a global center of trade, thus the name.
Others suggest it was a sales technique - basically Panama Hat sounds better than New Granada Hat. Seems likely to me!
This name was cemented when the US was constructing the Panama Canal. Workers, and even visiting President Roosevelt, were photographed in the dapper hats.
They had a heyday in the ’20s-’40s (or should I say straw-day?), and they were made in all the popular styles of that time - above all, fedora. However, in these fashion-conscious days, they are again soaring in popularity.
On the wave of the worldwide resurgence in popularity of Panama Hats is Colombian beachwear shop, Martin Pescador.
Founded by Nicolás Vásquez, it has stores in Bogotá and Cartagena, as well as online. And Nicolás is passionate about Colombian Panama Hats.
Several years ago, he visited Nariño, in the south of Colombia, and found a group of skilled artisans, making beautiful Panama Hats.
He decided to incorporate these Panama Hats into his store, and soon they became front and center. He now ships hats to companies across the world, but mostly around the Caribbean. After all, what could be more Caribbean?
“In the Caribbean islands it’s almost like a dress code,” he explained, “You have a Panama Hat, a linen shirt, espadrilles. Everybody’s having rum, listening to great music. It’s a way of life.”
“Other than our stores, we only sell Panama Hats wholesale, to companies, but we are working on our website so that we can sell to individuals in the US.” So, if you want one of their hats you have to visit Colombia.
What is his favorite thing about Panama Hats? It’s their natural ability to keep you cool. “It’s essential to have a good sweatband,” he added, “but the material does not warm up. That is the source of their popularity. When the Panama Canal was under construction, people were dying of dehydration and heat-stroke. The introduction of the Panama Hat totally changed that.”
So are the Colombian hats as good?
Many people ‘in-the-know’ assume only Ecuadorian Panama hats are the genuine article, but this is far from the truth.
Over the centuries many would likely have come from Colombia. Search the internet and you will find article upon article about the Ecuadorian variety. Colombian Panama Hats have been ignored in the history books.
Yet, Panama Hats are quintessentially Colombian.
To claim them as Colombian are you stealing the heritage of Ecuador? Absolutely not.
America may not have been the first to make beef jerky; it doesn’t make it any less American (in fact, the Ecuadorians might claim that too, since the word Jerky comes from Ch'arki in their native Quechua!).
The cultural importance to the hats within Colombia is immense.
They are emblematic of the Colombian countryside. The archetypal image of Colombia is the coffee farmer with a folded ruana (a type of poncho) slung over their shoulder, a machete on his belt, and a Panama Hat on his head.
The photo above is on Hacienda Venecia, a coffee plantation south of Medellín, which is well worth a visit. You will notice, walking around, that the hat is almost a status symbol - only the plantation owners and their ‘sergeants’, the leaders of the coffee-picking teams, wear the Panama Hats.
So, what is a Panama Hat?
Panama Hats vary in size, shape, color, quality, and price.
Think of a Panama Hat and you see a bright white, wide-brimmed, straw fedora with a black band. However, the Panama can also be found with short brims, with flat brims (like the ‘boater’ popular in the ’20s) and they come in a range of colors.
The material used is not straw, as we know it - from barley or wheat. It is, in fact, made from a tropical palm-like plant. It is generally the carludovica palmata, known locally as either toquilla, jipijapa, or iraca in Colombia.
If you wander around the touristy parts of the Caribbean coast of Mexico, you will see people selling ‘Panama Hats’ made from random materials such as woven hemp or cotton. No. Don’t trust anybody who tries to fool you with something like that. These are not Panama Hats in any sense of the term. They are undermining their local artisans, and they are tricking you out of your hard-earned cash!
What should I look for when I am buying a Panama Hat?
The iraca plant is dried using charcoal and sulfur and then left in the sun. This naturally takes out the color pigment.
Other communities use different natural methods to take out the color - leaving them in mixes such as lemon and salt, for example.
Ok, not always. Many nowadays use peroxide.
Nicolás, at Martin Pescador, told me that the natural color is a darker brown called habano. Cream or white can be quickly achieved with peroxide, but you know the habano hats have not been left in the chemical bath. They are, therefore, more resistant and less likely to crack.
“Habano is totally natural, untouched, like full-grain leather - and is the best, in my opinion. Of course some prefer white, it probably makes you look smarter. It depends what you like!”
When buying a Panama, it is worth considering all shades, not only because darker shades are likely to be more natural and long-lasting, but also because they may well suit you better and combine with your wardrobe more.
Nicolás said, “If you have a very white skin-tone, for example, you should try a habano colored hat.”
Another assumed fact about these hats is that you can roll them up and store them in a little box. This isn’t universally true.
Although not all are able to do this, it is quite amazing to see a hat made out of straw that is so flexible you can roll it up as if it were cloth.
Hats which are soft enough to be rolled up, have gone through a secondary process. The straw has been ‘cooked’ for around 15 days.
This makes them more time-consuming to produce, and not everybody wants this - so most hats don’t go through this stage. You might have to look a little harder, and pay a little more, if you want a Panama you can roll up and take in your luggage, or tuck into your pocket.
Depending on the thickness of the weave, an artisan takes days, or even weeks, to create a single hat. The finer the weave, the heavier the hat (but we are talking about a few grams) and also the more resistant it’ll be. It depends what you are looking for.
The most intricate weaves take the most time, and are the most expensive. They can look like they are made from fabric rather than straw.
You will often see them graded - fino, super-fino, extra-fino, fino-fino, ultra-fino, extra-extra-fino, and so on. While these are sacred to some people, they actually don’t mean anything!
These terms are a good (rough) guide as to the quality of the weave, but there are no rules, so one seller might have a different definition to the next.
Neither is the fineness of the weave necessarily the most important factor.
It is also essential to pay attention to the quality of the weave - the best weavers make fewer mistakes. It will never be perfect because they are hand-made, with natural fibers, but, basically, if you see several holes in the weave, or it is uneven, you are not dealing with a high-quality item.
It’s said that the fine weave developed because the indigenous Americans used to take off their hats and use them to carry water.
A good-quality, ‘super-fino’, Panama Hat can take six months to weave and will set you back $10,000 to $25,000 in the US.
One thing to look out for in the weave, which is a great sign of the skill of the artisan who made it, is the finish, around the edge of the brim. The vast majority of Panama hats have a finish (like both I own) where the straw is doubled over and stitched. This obviously works, but is not the best.
The more traditional method is to tuck the end of each straw in - there is no stitching. You can’t see where the straw ends! This needs an extra level of attention to detail from the artisan, and is something to look out for.
There are some variations in the weave and finish you might like, for example:
- The ‘unfinished look’ - some hats leave the straw loose at the end.
- Material around the edges - sometimes discreet, in a similar color to the straw, other times in a different material, in order to stand out. This has two purposes: to finish off the edges, or as a feature of the hat.
- The open weave crown - intentional spaces in the weave around the crown to let air circulate. Popular with golfers!
Hatbands are a great way to make your Panama Hat stand out. Often when you buy a Panama Hat, it will have a generic synthetic band. It is worth taking the time to search out other options, and making your own ‘upgrade’.
There are so many options, different colors, different materials - and each makes a different statement: silk, leather, rope.
At Martin Pescador there are a variety of bands woven in traditional methods by Colombian indigenous women. Something unique like this is a gorgeous accent to a hat, and a fascinating talking piece.
Some also like to ornament their hatbands - this could be with a feather, a pin, a buckle, or perhaps even a pompom.
The inside of the hat, usually, also has a band where it meets the skin. A soft fabric, which has a little elasticity, is probably the best.
These are hot-weather hats, so you want something breathable, that will not become sticky.
Avoid, or replace, anything plasticy or uncomfortable, this is really going to affect how you relax in this hat.
You can find Panama Hats in most of the other shapes you find men’s hats.
The most popular style is the fedora, but there are huge variations within that - wide brim, short brim, flat brim, tall crown, short crown, brim up, brim down, curled brim…
Other styles, which are not so easy to get away with these days, include the boater (think of Buster Keaton) and the safari (like that guy in Jumanji).
The most unique Panama Hat style has a ridge running down the center. This is called the optimo. It is thought this was originally a result of the hats being rolled, but became so iconic that it was included in the design.
Given all the variables, you can’t stick a price on a Panama Hat - decide what you want, and search it out.
If you want the best, be prepared to save up for it. While most Panama hats are affordable, the more intricate weaves very quickly rise in price. Perhaps expect $50-$100 for a decent hat, but people pay $1000 and much more for the top quality.
Buying a Panama hat in the US will be more expensive than if you visit the source. So if you really want a deal, and are up for a little adventure, why not visit Ecuador, Mexico, or Colombia?
The magic of Panama Hats
Nicolás summed up the beauty of Panama Hats. He picked up a stunning, extra-fino hat, and pointed to the crown: “Look, there’s a hole, this shouldn’t happen, the weave should be very even. However, that’s the magic of them, because it’s one piece, unrepeatable - a piece of art. There are not two the same in the world”.
Panama Hats are handmade, artisanal, products which are really worth searching out. In an age of mass-produced factory clothing, you can wear these hats with pride and reap the benefits of a high-quality item.
If you had any questions before buying your Panama Hat I hope I have answered them here - if not leave a message below, and I’ll get back to you.
Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for upcoming posts.
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